The fights and the fighters... Irish professional boxing review of 2020

James Tennyson has moved to the verge of a world title shot at lightweight. Picture Matt Bohill.
James Tennyson has moved to the verge of a world title shot at lightweight. Picture Matt Bohill.

THE threat of Covid-19 overshadowed 2020 and many Irish boxers had to work hard just to stay afloat. There was just one professional bill in Belfast so everyone had to do their fighting in TV studios or Eddie Hearn’s back garden which meant Covid-secure bubbles, rigorous testing and long spells of social isolation.

The likes of Anto Cacace, Paddy Gallagher and Sean Duffy didn’t box at all but several others did make progress.

James Tennyson continued to climb the lightweight ladder, Tommy McCarthy captured the EBU title and there were a number of promising debuts too. Andy Watters reviews a challenging 12 months for Irish boxing.

Fighter of the Year

James Tennyson (lightweight, 2020: 2-0, career 28-3)

THEY set them up and hammer-handed Tennyson keeps knocking them down - he’s on a six in-a-row stoppage streak since he moved up to lightweight.

The Tony Dunlop-trained, Poleglass wrecking ball is a beast at lightweight where his punch power sets him apart and he moved to the brink of a shot a world title with two emphatic victories last year.

The first was his British title win against Wales hardman Gavin Gwynne. From Merthyr Tydfil, the town that produced the iconic ‘Matchstick man’ Johnny Owen, Gwynne is as tough as they come and he did well to stand with Tennyson for five rounds when they met in August. But by the midway point of the fight, his marked-up face told a tale. Tennyson had him down in the sixth and it was soon waved off.

Tennyson barely broke sweat when beating out-matched Canadian Josh O’Reilly in a WBA eliminator in December. From the opening bell. O’Reilly (the NABA champion) looked in trouble and soon found himself trapped in a corner. After two minutes and 14 seconds it was all over.

Afterwards Matchroom boss Eddie Hearn hailed Tennyson as “one of the most exciting fighters in boxing” but he understandably added a note of caution before the Belfast fighter steps up to WBA top brass Teofimo Lopez or Gervonta ‘Tank’ Davis. Jorge Linares is now an intriguing possibility at the Odyssey in the spring.

Performance of the Year

Tommy McCarthy v Bilal Laggoune (EBU Cruiserweight title)

IN March 2019, McCarthy was wandering in the boxing wilderness following a KO loss to fearsome Richard Riakporhe in London. Where would he go from there? The phone stopped ringing, he dropped to sparring partner level and the chances of him challenging again seemed remote.

But astute manager Mark Dunlop, the coaching of Pete Taylor and McCarthy’s own dedication earned him another chance and he has taken it. Late in 2019 he travelled to Italy and beat Fabio Turci then, at Halloween last year, he faced Belgian Laggoune for the European title that had been vacated by Lawrence Okolie who had moved on to a crack at the WBO belt.

Laggoune was competitive in many of the rounds but McCarthy, looking fitter than ever, took a deserved majority decision win (one judge had it level). He has proven he is good enough at European level and after his win in Wembley, McCarthy said Latvia’s IBF champion Mairis Briedis is his target now. You can expect his next fight to be a stepping stone towards reaching that goal.

Fight of the Year

IBF Inter-Continental Super Featherweight title: Eric Donovan v Zelfa Barrett

NOT the result Irish fans hoped for but this was a terrific scrap at the Matchroom Fight Camp constructed in the back garden of Eddie Hearn’s London home.

Donovan produced the performance of his life and peppered Barrett for six rounds until the Englishman, who had been totally out-boxed, caught the Kildare native with a thundering left hook in the seventh. Donovan showed terrific heart to get back on his feet but big-hitting Barrett closed the show in the eighth with another huge left hook.

Though beaten, ‘Lilywhite Lightening’ emerged with great credit and he moved on with a win in Belgium before the end of last year

Quote of the Year

"Katie Taylor is the best fighter to come out of Ireland bar none."

Ireland's first two-weight world champion Steve 'The Celtic Warrior' Collins

Michael Conlan (super-bantamweight, 2020: 1-0 career: 14-0)

FORMER world title challenger Sofiane Takoucht looked out of his depth when Conlan stopped him at the BT Sport studios in August (Carl Frampton was also on that bill).

It was another eye-catching display from Conlan who is improving with every fight. Boxing southpaw, he had little trouble with the Frenchman and referee Steve Gray stepped in to stop it in the 10th and final round. Gray deducted two points from Conlan during the fight (he had done the same two years previously when Conlan beat Jason Cunningham) for low blows in rounds four and five. It didn’t prove costly against Takoucht but Conlan needs to ‘keep them up’ going forward.

And what is next going forward? There was talk of a run-in with former WBO champ Isaac Dogboe but more likely is a shot against the winner of the Angelo Leo versus Steve Fulton WBO title fight which is scheduled for January 23.

Conlan had hoped to fight in December 5 but that was ruled out after he sustained an ankle ligament injury sidelined him for two months.

Carl Frampton

HIS long-awaited rumble with Jamel Herring was pencilled in for Windsor Park last summer but, like so many other sporting events, it was scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

There was also the distraction of legal proceedings stemming from his action against counter-suing former handlers Cyclone Promotions. The case was settled in November leaving Frampton pleased with the outcome and free to concentrate on preparing for his meeting with New Yorker Herring which will finally happen next month.

Frampton fought just once in 2020. His opponent was out-matched Scot Darren ‘Trayn wreck’ Traynor who lasted a few rounds until Frampton blew him away. There was proof that Frampton had not ‘lost the dawg’ in the ruthless way he finished off Traynor that night but Herring will obviously be a huge step up in class.

Beating the former US Marine – the reigning WBO super-featherweight belt holder - will make ‘the Jackal’ Ireland’s first ever three-weight world champion.

“People talk about him being a US Marine and being mentally strong,” Frampton said.

“But there’s not a chance that I’ll let this guy beat me. Not a chance in hell.”

Tommy McCarthy (cruiserweight, 2020: 1-0, career: 17-2)

See Performance of the Year

Lewis Crocker (welterweight, 2020: 2-0, career: 12-0)

‘CROC’ finished the year as WBO European champion. He started it with an impressive win over former British title challenger John Thain and, after the Covid lockdown, travelled to England to meet Louis Greene for the coveted ranking title.

On paper at least, Greene had boxed at a higher level and was viewed by some as the favourite but Crocker was having none of that and a whiplash left hook had the Englishman on the floor in the first.

Another left hook, this time to the body, had Greene in trouble in the seventh and when he was sent down again by a booming right hand the referee stepped in to conclude a statement of quality and intent from Crocker.

Aaron McKenna (middleweight, 2020: 1-0, career: 11-0)

KEEP an eye on this fella. The ‘Silencer’ from Smithborough in county Monaghan looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth but his choirboy looks disguise a ruthlessness and ambition and he has the skills and power to match it.

McKenna only had one fight in 2020 and he was mighty impressive. Nimble footwork got him in range and created angles for him to attack Jordan Grannum and he exploited them brilliantly and hammered the experienced journeyman with accurate, powerful shots off both hands. Grannum had never previously been stopped or put down but his proud record ended that night.

Looking every inch a prospect with the talent to go a long way, McKenna impressed everyone watching – including Channel 5 pundits George Groves and Richie Woodall – with a quality stoppage win.

Tyrone McKenna (light-welterweight, 2020: 1-1, career: 21-2-1)

‘THE Mighty Celt’ got the decision against Mohamed Mimoune in February to book a spot in the Golden Contract final that was held over until September because of the Covid-19 shutdown.

McKenna has been criticised for being overly-aggressive in the past but in the final against arch-enemy Ohara Davies (the pair of them had come to blows in a car park previously) the Pete Taylor-trained fighter decided to use his advantages in height and reach and box his way to victory.

He gave a good account of himself but didn’t do enough and left the ring annoyed that he hadn’t thrown caution to the wind and mixed it with Davies.

Padraig McCrory (super-middleweight, 2020: 2-0, career: 11-0)

WHEN he catches them clean, opponents don’t tend to hang around long and ‘the Hammer’ took his record into double-figures with two wins at opposite ends of the year.

First up was a six-round points win over Lewis van Poetsch and it was followed by a devastating first round KO success against Mickey Ellison on the other side of the lockdown. There’s a lot to like about McCrory’s style. He’s tall, elusive and can hit but he needs regular work in 2021 to get the best out of his talent.

Stephen McKenna (light-welterweight, 2020: 2-0, career: 7-0)

‘THE Hitman’ has a contrasting style to his brother Aaron but he was equally effective in 2020 and is another Monaghan prospect worth keeping tabs on. Picked up back-to-back stoppage wins on consecutive weekends live on Channel 5, first with an all-out assault that broke down MJ Hall and then a KO win (his seventh straight early victory) against Des Newton.

Tyrone McCullagh (featherweight, 2020: 0-1, career: 14-1)

LOSING to the experienced Ryan Walsh in the semi-finals of the Golden Contract tournament in February was a massive blow to the Derry man’s confidence.

In the early rounds, defensive McCullagh got his shots off and then got on his bike to stay out of trouble but when Walsh inevitably caught up with him he dominated the remainder of the contest and won by unanimous decision.

Recovering from such a setback will be a challenge but it certainly isn’t beyond McCullagh. There was talk of him returning to action before the end of the year. It didn’t happen but he will be back this year.

Sean McComb (lightweight, 2020: 2-0 career: 11-0)

‘A-WELL-aaaaaa… Everybody's heard about the bird…’ Sean McComb loves to make an entrance and the whacky strains of ‘Surfin Bird’ provided the music for his unforgettable ringwalk at the Production Park Studios in Kirby, near Liverpool where ‘the Public Nuisance’ recorded his second win of the year.

Tall, skilful and a natural entertainer, McComb was due to get a shot at the Commonwealth title on January 22 but that has now been postponed. Former James Tennyson opponent Gavin Gwynne will test him when the fight eventually takes place.

Caomhin Agyarko (middleweight, 2020: 2-0 career: 8-0)

SINGLEMINDED and talented, London-based middleweight Agyarko moved to within touching distance of title contention with two stoppage wins last year.

He had Jez Smith down three times in July and had far too much for Robbie Chapman in November. A step up in class is required next and ambitious Agyarko looks ready for it; he’s certainly one to watch.

Eric Donovan (super-featherweight, 2020: 2-1, career: 13-1)

See Fight of the Year

Gary Cully (lightweight, 2020: 2-0, career: 11-0)

THE raucous bear pit atmosphere when Cully fought Joe Fitzpatrick rekindled memories of great boxing nights at the Ulster Hall. Dubliner Cully caught the local man with a left hand/right-hook combination after a minute and ‘Fitzy’ couldn’t recover. Referee David Irving stepped in to stop it with Fitzpatrick pinned to the ropes and taking punishment a minute and 38 seconds in.

Women’s boxing

Fighter of the Year

Katie Taylor (lightweight, 2020: 2-0, career: 17-0)

PEERLESS Taylor was named Ring Magazine Female Fighter of the Year for the second year running (the first to do so) and who could argue with that? The Bray native joined a very exclusive club. In the male category, only Manny Pacquiao (2008 and 2009), Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Ingemar Johansson, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield have managed the feat.

Like those illustrious names, Taylor has taken on, and beaten, all comers. She began 2020 with a rematch against Delfine Peerson. The Belgian policewoman had taken Taylor to the wire in their first meeting in June 2019 but Taylor was never in trouble in the second instalment and won by unanimous decision.

Taylor, now rated the pound-for-pound number one in women’s boxing, retained her hold on the lightweight division by outclassing previously unbeaten Miriam Gutierrez in November.

Cathy McAleer (bantamweight, 2020: 1-1, career: 4-1)

A high-profile contract with Kelly Maloney was a considerable profile boost but McAleer’s promising career was dealt a serious bodyblow when she was beaten by Hungarian Gabriella Mezei in a ‘drive-through’ show in Sheffield in December. McAleer, who has parted company with coach John Breen and will be based in England in the preparation for her fights, will hope to regain the lost ground this year.

New kids on the block

LIGHTWEIGHT James McGivern made an eagerly-awaited pro debut in August and immediately caught the eye with impressive wins over two durable journeymen. The tall southpaw showed off his slick skills and maintained a high punch output throughout both contests. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

Middleweight Fearghus Quinn also impressed on the same bills. The former Armagh gaelic footballer took to the ring wearing his club jersey and his introduction: ‘From Belleek, Ireland…’ will have delighted his following in south Armagh. He will add to that support base as his career progresses.

Elsewhere, welterweight Paddy Donovan moved to 5-0 and Paul McCullough jnr made a perfect start to life in the professional ranks as he earned a third round stoppage victory over Ben Thomas in Wakefield.

Former Connor McGregor sparring partner Tiarnan Bradley had his first taste of pro action in Spain and there were also early signs of class from his brother Callum, Owen O’Neill, Pierce O’Leary and Connor ‘the Magnificent’ Quinn which suggested they will all feature much more prominently in these pages in years to come.

A sad farewell

BARNEY Eastwood, the godfather of Irish boxing, passed away in March after a long illness at the age of 87. He will be forever remembered for the joy he brought to millions by guiding Barry McGuigan, Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley, Paul Hodkinson, Victor Cordoba and Cristanto Espana to world titles during an era of unprecedented success for his Belfast gym in the 1980s and 1990s.

Born in Cookstown, county Tyrone, ‘BJ’ was an All-Ireland winner as a talented forward with the Red Hand minors in 1948 (he scored four points in the final again7BGV&???B?Rv?R?F?&W&W6V?F?R6??B6V?"?fV?v???w2v?B?R?v?B?fR6?WfVB??t'WBFW7F??F?????F?W"F?&V7F????v?F??2v?fRg&?W2?R&?v?BV"??6'&?6?fW&wW2BF?RvR???vV??F?'V??&???V?&RF?B?RWfV?V?6?BF??F'&?2f?

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